A playful, twisted ode to Ozu from the unlikeliest of places (and genres)…
Most people who saw Masayuki Suo from his humble beginnings in 1984 no doubt couldn’t have imagined him later briefly becoming something of an international celebrity among audiences, critics and Hollywood. But that’s what happened in 1996, when he released overall the biggest and most famous Japanese movie of that decade for mainstream international audiences (not counting anime), Shall We Dance? Even without ever replicating that degree of success, Suo ended up not too unreasonably being taken by some as his generation’s cinematic ambassador of modern Japanese culture. His oeuvre’s subject matter almost perfectly runs the gamut of popular world images of modern Japanese society in all its uniqueness, wonders, ups and downs and peculiarities: salarymen, geisha, monks, sumo wrestlers, suicide and trains (and groping on trains).
But Suo is far from a cheap caterer to the West (I doubt he was even thinking much about it except maybe on his biggest hit), as nearly all of his films — even if having unabashed mainstream sensibilities — have a certain subversiveness about them. Most of his protagonists even while taking part in the most distinctly “Japanese” professions and activities are challenging, critiquing or rebelling against their associated conformity: the monk (Fancy Dance) loves punk rock and refuses to relinquish it upon becoming a monk; the sumo wrestler (Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t) movie features a female sumo wrestler that proves pivotal to the plot; the train one (I Just Didn’t Do It) condemns groping culture but also that of bringing people down without evidence or ample chance to defend themselves (both even more resonant topics today than when it came out); and even the international hit gently but firmly tells Japan and the rest of the world Japanese aren’t always and don’t have to be stiff workmen.
Well, Suo’s debut was already on that exact same path but in a way that’s more extreme, challenging arguably the most sacred of all elements of Japanese society: the family unit. And he did so by heavily invoking no less than that subject’s pretty much undisputed greatest cinematic chronicler and artist, Yasujiro Ozu. But this time, did it really mean anything?
There was a father. His name was Shukichi Mamiya (Ren Osugi, later to become a regular for “Beat” Takeshi and Takashi Miike films), and he’s determined to responsibly head the family or something since his wife passed away. A mother should be loved. And that’s exactly why Shukichi keeps making passes at women by telling them they look like her.
But there’s something equally peculiar about the brothers and sisters of the Mamiya family as well — especially since busy salaryman Kōichi (Pink veteran Shirō Shimomoto) just brought his new bride Yuriko (Kaoru Kaze) to the house. But it’s more than work that seems to keep keeping Kōichi from coming back home to Yuriko. For him, Yuriko was simply that night’s wife, able to be substituted for other women the nights afterward, especially the “Bar Madam” (Usagi Aso) who papa also pursues. So what’s Yuriko to do when even as a bride she seems just to be a passing fancy?
Seeing their situation makes younger sister Akiko (Miki Yamaji) very pessimistic about traditional family and work life. So she becomes like a hen in the wind (albeit one that flaps with it far more willingly than Ozu’s did) as she quits her office job on a whim, deciding instead to work the Tokyo Twilight shifts at the Turkish sauna (as the brothel-y ones are called in Japan). There she becomes “Laura Baugh”, no longer confined to the expectations of respectable Japanese family life, work and femininity. But what did the Lady [of the night] forget? The possibility that one of the sauna’s customers could end up being her freewheeling brother!
That all leaves the youngest, poor Kazuo (Kei Shutō) as the only son….who hasn’t gotten a piece of the action. So he’s becoming increasingly (and uncontrollably) curious about the saunas and sister-in-law. Can the family manage through so much consternation upon the arrival of brother’s bride? Who knows. Either way, the only thing clear is whether in the household, outside or at the “Turks”, this family will keep goin’ at it from early Summer to the end of Summer, and from late Spring all the way through late Autumn. (But just like before, nothing seems to happen in the Winter.)
One can be honest here: If you’re a big or especially a prudish admirer of Ozu you may well think this to be a flippant travesty; if you’re a general pink movie fan, you may find this to be a big letdown as the sexual content is not only fairly light, but often as deadpan as everything else.
The characters can almost be like animals (and I mean that neither contemptuously nor poetically) in how easily, immediately and inconsiderately (in both the usual and rarely used “without thinking much of” sense) it happens. But it’s part of the joke that the “love” scenes have the same generally dispassionate, unassuming quality that the family drama and dialogue of Ozu’s films did at the surface.
That being said, if you’re not an admirer of Ozu and/or at least somewhat knowledgable about his work, you’ll also not be able to sufficiently appreciate this movie (having a little knowledge of Japanese will also help a bit). Those looking for pure exploitation are in the wrong place as well. Suo was never one into content about women being abused or humiliated; what little forceful S&M material is here is inflicted upon consenting males.
In fact, AFBB keeps the same sunny, lighthearted mood of most of Suo’s other films — actually even sunnier here, from the literal sunshine gleaming throughout to its pleasant 80s commercial jingle-esque soundtrack (which shares some similarity with Ozu’s later, more sentimental films). For a movie so coldly cynical and shamelessly immoral in its raw content, its presentation effectively makes it feel like exactly the opposite of what it is (and again, that’s the joke).
Much care is also taken to imitate Ozu with the camera angles and long, static shots, simple but effective set design and even logos. But my favourite part of the parody is the dialogue, which can be so insipidly monotonous (with the family just nodding along and repeating the same phrases with each other) as to become highly amusing when noting the contrast with the outlandishness of the material.
But even when clearly having him in mind for almost every facet, calling this a “tribute” to Ozu sounds rather funny. This kind of “tribute” could’ve met outrage or at least disparaging ridicule if done in Hollywood, and could’ve served as a blot in an up-and-comer’s career hampering them from being taken seriously. Imagine if say, such a director had tried to emerge with a comprehensive pornographic tribute to Frank Capra; so this movie showed an example of how virtually nothing in Japanese entertainment is sacred. But to play devil’s advocate, it’s not entirely removed thematically (hyperbolic though it may be) from all of its inspiration. Late Spring, in particular, has what can reasonably be interpreted as a strong Freudian subtext in its core plot — .i.e. how protagonist Noriko’s total attachment to her father and extreme jealousy upon seeing him with another woman was presented in a similar manner to Hollywood and even other Japanese romances involving couples.
Suo makes it a point to have Shukichi looking all wise and dignified as the family elder (channelling Ozu cinema’s perpetual patriarch Chishū Ryū in a kind of composite role) on the “public” scenes, only to actually be shown as something of a womanizing buffoon in private, with that most “dignified” of pick-up lines.
Akiko actually comes off as the most well-developed character (not in the sense many Pink fans would be thinking of first — that would be Yuriko), providing the first clear manifestation of Suo’s M.O. of lightly provocative material challenging Japanese society. For her, changing from O.L. to Laura gives her a newfound sense of freedom, zest and determination not to let anything penetrate her — emotionally.
It all implicitly begs the question: who among them is really the most “abnormal” and why? Further exploration of those elements would have been welcome, but the movie avoids ever trying to step far outside the parameters of an elaborate joke. Perhaps it was thought there was no time for anything else in its hour.
Suo was clearly just screwing around when making this movie, just as every significant character on it is in their different way. But by putting that much effort, thought and dedication to craft into screwing around — and for a studio (Shintoho) whose only real concern was that the filmmakers effectively fulfil their quota for sex scenes/flashes of nudity — Suo cleverly carried out his task in a way that also made it unmistakable he had and would reach bigger aspirations from there.
But Abnormal Family remains unique as an expertly arranged marriage between pinku and shōshimin genres for a very breezy kind of sleazy. So it’s definitely worth a look for those who are really inclined to appreciate it — even if they’re probably about as rare to spot as an equinox flower, for it being as acquired of a taste as the flavour of green tea over rice.
“It’s boring being a woman you know. Marriage ends everything. You’ll be confined to your house, waiting for old age.”
Abnormal Family: Older Brother’s Bride is available in dual format Blu-Ray from Third Window Films on 25th May as part of their Pink film series (Pink films vol. 3 & 4, with Blue Film Woman). The newly remastered version also includes a video essay on the pink genre by the author Jasper Sharp.
Side note: Ozu was not the only victim of dubious “tributes” from pink directors. In fact, all of the “Big Three” were: also see Tatsumi Kumashiro’s tawdried-up remake of Mizoguchi’s Red Light District [Street of Shame] — probably not as irreverent as the others for at least staying on the same subject matter — and Yasuharu Hasebe’s Kurosawa “tribute” The Naked Seven.
Home media details
Distributor: Third Window Films (UK)
Edition: Blu-ray (2020)
The two-film set also comes with a half-hour rundown from Jasper Sharp. While somewhat bare-bones in presentation with occasional clips, it gives a good overview of pink cinema for newcomers in particular. But I always thought it amusing when pink film specialists/historians mention them as being “very mild” compared to their Western softcore counterparts (as Sharp indeed wasn’t the first to say so). I suppose “mild” there really just means they don’t (and couldn’t) show full frontal or certain related things. But in the West especially, I think more than a few people would define many of these films’ quite graphic depictions of rape, sex/sexualization involving underage girls (even when it’s just their characters), sexual torture, mutilation and miscellaneous other things (like even in the lighthearted Abnormal Family’s case, total nonchalance towards incest) as at least no milder than showing folk serving pickles and pie.
I’m not sure about anybody else, but if my (pretty conservative) mum, for example, had to choose between watching/showing me as a child either Showgirls or Shogun’s Joys of Torture, I’m pretty damned sure she wouldn’t have chosen the latter just because it had a little white dot floating over certain bits.